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'Rare' research at INL aims to make U.S. technology sustainable, homegrown

By Caleb James
Published On: Jan 30 2013 02:38:47 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 09 2013 11:14:44 PM CST

Caleb James reports.

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho -

Idaho National Lab researchers will soon be part of a new program to help develop solutions to the frightening shortage of rare earth materials in the United States.

The new $120 million Department of Energy initiative is called the Energy Innovation Hub. INL researchers will work with Iowa-based Ames Laboratory researchers to form the team.

The program's efforts will focus on developing sustainable processes to harvest and develop so-called "rare earth materials." These elements are crucial for many technology applications like cellular telephones, cameras and computers. 

Like their name, the elements are rare. They are usually mined in countries with environmental laws much more relaxed than in the United States. Currently, China controls about 95 percent of the rare earth materials market.

That is where INL research will make a major impact. 

"You use these things constantly in very every-day applications, probably without ever knowing about it," said David Miller, director of Process Science and Technology for INL. 

Miller held an iPhone as an example of the kind of technology that wouldn't be available if not for rare earth materials.

"Basically if we didn't have these materials, certain things we just wouldn't be able to have them in our day to day lives," he said. 

Miller and his team are now part of a bigger team to develop ways to process and develop rare earth materials in the United States. 

Rare earth mining is thinly regulated in countries like China. It could be compared to the United States' current reliance on foreign oil.

Research at INL will focus on making the process more of a recycling program.

"One way you can think of it is a mining exercise from an urban source, rather than a natural source," said researcher Eric Peterson. 

Peterson is on the Energy Innovation Hub team. His focus is on developing cost-effective and innovative ways to actually harvest rare earth materials already used in high-tech applications. 

It's a different take on rare earth mining -- basically open-heart-surgery on used technology like cell phones and computers, to extract the rare earth materials. 

It would likely be less expensive than full-scale mining operations, and possibly more worthwhile, said Peterson. 

"They're at equal or greater concentration that you'd find in natural environmental mines," he said. 

The ultimate goal is to create a sustainable process to develop these materials so the United States is less reliant on foreign production. 

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